Good Mourning

Posted by @ 6:49 pm on March 10th, 2011

November 10

Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence–perhaps therefore love?

I always get an innate pleasure out of reading Roland Barthes. To be fair, I haven’t read much of his early work in which he lays out his ideas on structuralism, but I did read & briefly obsess over Writing Degree Zero. However, I think it’s the later works, where some sort of self is revealed, that I find most pleasurable. Take the ubiquitous Camera Lucida, a text that, surely, enraptures a large number of readers: Barthes centers his ideas on a photograph of his mother in her youth, the entire text, the ideas, arrive at the reader from this starting point.

There’s an intellectually rigorous, yet somehow still very casual, sense of thought present in the work of Barthes. As a thinker, especially a thinker involved with the Tel Quel group & (eventually) post-structuralism, his writing is also remarkably lucid, simple even. Where Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, Sollers himself can accurately be described as dense in their thoughts, the words on the page, with Barthes there’s a sense of breathing. Many of his books are also often less than 120 pages.

But this is not a trick– Barthes is not post-structuralism lite, and I don’t think anybody would imply this. But I guess that’s not the point here. A friend sent me a copy of the most recent of Barthes’s work to be translated, Mourning Diary. The book is a series of notes left almost daily by Barthes on note cards after the death of his mother. Barthes was remarkably close to his mother, and the death struck a very heavy blow.

I wanted to read the book because I was feeling kind of depressed and wanted to wallow in some intellectual whining. This is a somewhat ridiculous egotism that one can’t always avoid. By the time my copy of the book arrived, I had mostly escaped from the coldness that I wanted to writhe inside of, but I opened the book anyway. In three sittings I read Barthes’s notes on mourning.

November 21

Always that painful (because enigmatic, incomprehensible) wrench between my ease in talking, in taking an interest, in observing, in living as before, and the impulses of despair. Additional suffering: not to be more “disorganized.” But perhaps then I’m just suffering from a preconception.

The book is certainly a cold zone of affect. There is an articulated, yet self-aware, desperation present in Barthes’s terse notes. He never dwells on the minutiae of actual day to day events, only on the loss of his mother. It’s as if he’s intellectually embarrassed that he’s so upset. But not in a snotty, “I’m above this,” sort of way. Rather, it’s as if he struggles with the fact that his despair, his mourning, makes no sense.

To a degree this is almost beautiful. I say beautiful because it’s demonstrative of a remarkably intelligent man who becomes fractured. It’s demonstrative of a remarkably intelligent man who becomes fractured yet, in the midst of his despair, manages to write some of his most important work (including the aforementioned Camera Lucida).

The “diary” is not a diary, rather, it’s a document. The “diary” is not really something that one can empathize with, despite the fact that often the presentation of a desperate emotional state is easy to connect to. There’s nothing to hold onto here. There is nothing but mourning, occasionally a scattered reference to the world outside of Barthes’s pain, but the outside is kept at a distance.

This is a book that does something in a way completely different from other books, perhaps not even intended to ever become a book, yet still working as a book, and through this work, offering experience.

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